‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’, Palm Sunday (C) – 2013

March 24, 2013

The Liturgy of the Palms (RCL): Luke 19:28-40; Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The Liturgy of the Word (RCL): Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Only in Luke’s gospel do we find this statement of Jesus from the cross. It is a truly remarkable statement. In fact, it may be the most powerful and transformative thing he ever said. And the really amazing thing about this statement is that it is a prayer. Abba, “Father.” The first words uttered by Jesus on the cross are a prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Now, we may suppose, to pray in a time of great pain and tribulation is not all that surprising. Turning to prayer in a desperate and terrifying time seems quite natural and instinctive. When the ground gives way beneath our feet, when some dire tragedy strikes us, when we feel lashed by bitter storms, it seems quite natural to cry out to God. In the midst of tragedy and in the midst of despair, we seem to instinctively cry out: “O God, Dear Lord, Heavenly Father, have mercy upon us.”

But when we pray under such dire circumstances, it is almost always for ourselves. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain and tragedy and torment, we tend to cry out, “O, Lord, help me in my distress.” “O, God, save me from my struggles.” “Dear Lord, rescue me from my tribulations.”

What surprises us about Christ’s prayer on the cross is that he does not pray for himself. He does not ask for his own deliverance. He is taunted by others to save himself, who scoff at him and say, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah, his chosen one.” But that is not what he prays for. He does not even pray for his family or his friends who will be left behind.

Rather, the first words that Jesus utters upon the cross are a prayer for the people who are putting him to death. The first people who come to mind, who are lifted up in prayer, are his enemies. Not himself. Not even his family and friends. But his enemies are first and foremost in his heart and prayers. And it almost goes without saying, it is not a prayer asking for God’s vengeance upon them, but rather a prayer asking God to forgive them.

A natural human response might have been to pray for the destruction of his enemies. But the first words Jesus utters are a prayer for the forgiveness of the soldiers who paraded him through the city streets and who nailed him to the cross. With his arms stretched out upon the hard wood of the cross, high above the murderous hands of the soldiers who had crucified him, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

And with these words, with this prayer, everything changes. These may be the most revolutionary and transformative words ever spoken in human history. “Forgive my enemies, for they know not what they do.” With this prayer, Christ takes all of the hatred and all of the violence and all of the vengeance of the world and says, “Enough.”

Enough. We’ve had enough of the spiral of violence and counter-violence that just leads to more of the same. It has to end somewhere. Enough.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

With these words, with this prayer, Christ shatters the glamour of violence that blinds us in this world, and sets in its place a vision of reconciliation and peace. We remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

What Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount, he practiced on the Mount of Calvary. On the cross, Jesus prays for his enemies, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” and everything changes.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died in the real world, and it was a world saturated and captivated by hatred and violence. In these first words from the cross, in this prayer, Jesus reveals God’s own costly love for the world, mediating God’s forgiveness and friendship even in the midst of our violent world. In this prayer from the cross, Christ takes all of it upon himself, all of the hatred and all of the violence of the world, and he says “no more.”

No more. The deadly cycle of violence and counter-violence is broken, and begins to yield to a new world of compassion and solidarity and reconciliation. On the cross, we see God’s costly gift of love in the person of Christ, and in the prayer of Christ for the transformation of the whole world.

In this prayer, we see the truth of God’s love; the truth, as Daniel Migliore puts it in his book “Faith Seeking Understanding,” that: “God’s compassion is greater than the murderous passions of our world, that God’s glory can and does shine even in the deepest night of human savagery; that God’s forgiving love is greater than our often paralyzing awareness of guilt, that God’s way of life is greater than our way of death.” In this prayer, in these words spoken from the cross, Christ opens up for us, even in the midst of our broken and violent world, a new future of reconciliation and peace.

The first words Jesus utters upon the cross are the prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And with this prayer, everything changes.

How long will it take until this weary world of ours wakes up and realizes it?


— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.


  1. Alfred Colquitt Shackelford, Jr. says:

    I wonder if this sermon might be more appropriate fro Good Friday than for Palm Sunday. Might it have been mislabeled, and is there another Palm Sunday sermon scheduled for publication?
    I do appreciate the two-week advance posting. The earlier we lay readers receive the sermon, the better preparation we can make.

    • Additional Palm Sunday sermons can be here: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/portfolio — also by going to the tab at the top of the homepage labeled “Lent C.” I can understand your confusion, but this is, in fact, a Palm Sunday sermon. Perhaps someone reading this can supply the details of when the lectionary readings for Palm Sunday were changed to include readings that were traditionally reserved for Good Friday, but it has been going on for a number of years now. Palm Sunday is now also referred to as Sunday of the Passion.

  2. The Rev. Harry L. Knisely says:

    Dear Fellow Laborers in the Harvest,
    Yes before the BCP of 1979, we had a calendar with Passion Sunday on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, and Palm Sunday as we began Holy Week. The uniqueness of the Palm Sunday Lliturgy is one step in liturgical development that makes sense to me.
    Father Harry+

  3. Dan Krutz says:

    I appreciated the sermon but also believe it can well be preached on Good Friday. For many of us Palm Sunday is about the only opportunity to address Good Friday because the vast majority of Church members in my experience pass up on much of Holy Week. Palm Sunday is the one opportunity to at least address the other days of Holy Week including Good Friday.

  4. connie zahalka says:

    I think Palm Sunday should remain a day of triumph, although we all know what is to come. Palm Sunday is the perfect day to invite people on the journey to Easter by participation in Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. To condense the week into Passion Sunday robs the congregation of the mystery of the week to come; it’s like reading the ending first so everyone will know what happens. ‘Just in case, you are not in church, let us tell you the story. I would rather live with the uncertainty if not knowing.

  5. Scott Christian says:

    Fr. Joseph,

    Thank you for your sermon, which is another example of the strength of our denomination. Lately I’ve been reading a great deal about “atonement” and the various theological perspectives surrounding this concept. In the best Episcopal “both-and” way, your sermon reminds us that the Cross is our way of life as well as our way to salvation.
    Specifically, your sermon provides a strong Christian basis for an organization which similarly summarizes our response to the violence in this world with that one word– “Enough,” i.e., the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

    Lenten blessings

  6. barbara baumgarten says:

    This sermon makes me long for appointing an antiphon of the noted verse to be used before and after the countless vindictive psalms that cry out for the destruction of “the wicked” or “enemies.” Imagine, in conjunction with praying verses like, “Upon the wicked he shall rain coals of fire and burning sulphur; a scorching wind shall be their lot” (Ps 11:7), we prayed before and after, “Forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

    Thank you Fr. Joseph, you have given me an Easter practice.

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